Academic Journals: What are They?

Jerz > Writing > Academic

An academic journal publishes scholarly, peer-reviewed articles written by experts. The function of a journal is to distribute knowledge, not to make money for the publishers (see: Academic Journals vs. Magazines).

scholarly — each fact or opinion is documented

Scholarly documentation provides the exact source — including the author and the page number — for every important bit of outside information. The article should end with adetailed bibliography. Footnotes or endnotes may be present.

  • Offering a list of “recommendations for further reading” or a vague collection of “sources” is not enough.
  • The article will probably be longcomplex, and possibly difficult for a non-expert to understand right away.

peer-reviewed — selected and approved by a panel of experts

Each academic journal has a peer review board (a panel of experts) that decides which submissions are acceptable for publication. The review board may send a paper back to the author with suggestions for improvement.

The peer review process doesn’t simply involve circling spelling mistakes. Submissions are screened by experts who will examine and challenge the author’s major assumptions and conclusions. Reviewers may accept, suggest minor changes, ask the author to make major changes and resubmit, or reject submissions.


If the article does appear in a peer-reviewed journal, you can feel confident that people who know a lot more than you do about a particular topic have decided the article is worth publishing.

Reality Check: Peer Review Isn’t Perfect.

In an earlier edition of this handout, I presented a much more idealistic view of peer review, for the benefit of my undergraduate students who hadn’t come across that term before. But some feedback I found online prompted me to go into a little more depth. (See “The Limits of Peer-Review (Sidebar).”)

An undergraduate is still better off citing a peer-reviewed article than something posted in “Crazy Joe’s Term Paper Archive,” but journalists should check out a peer-reviewed source with just as much thoroughness and skepticism as they would check out any other source. The old newswriting saw still applies: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” (See also: Academic Journals — Compared to Magazines.)

written by experts — not by journalists

Academic journals will typically identify their contributors as professors, graduate students, or others with first-hand experience with the subject matter. If the article credits the author as a journalist (“staff writer”, “correspondent” or “special” freelance contributor) then you are probably reading a magazine.

  • A journalist may very well produce a thoughtful, insightful, and important overview of a current issue in an academic field, but the journalist’s job is to summarize and explain what other people do.
  • Without those others doing the academic work, the reporter would have no story to report. (See also: Academic Journals — Compared to Magazines.)

Dennis G. Jerz
28 Dec 1999 — First posted.
10 Dec 2002 — Minor updates.
22 Jan 2007 — Toned down a too-idealistic description of peer review.
04 Apr 2011 — Minor tweaks
03 Feb 2018 — Minor tweaks

Related Links
The Limits of Peer-Review (Sidebar)
The people who sit on review boards are human, and they do make mistakes. It is impractical for the editoral staff to re-create every experiment, or re-read every source that the article cites.It is certainly possible that even a peer-reviewed academic article may include mistakes, misrepresntations, omissions, and outright fabrications. A physicist named Alan Sokal, suspicious of the effectiveness of the peer review process, submitted a rather unusual article to be peer reviewed by the journal Social Text.

Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies — whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Frederic Jameson and Andrew Ross — publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?

The answer, unfortuantely, is yes. — Alan Sokal

Some journals are moving towards a more open, transparent system of debating the pros and cons of submissions. (For example, I linked to a page where I found criticism of this handout, and then explained how I revised in order to respond to that criticism. Traditional peer review would have handled all that anonymously, and the public would only see the end result.)


8 thoughts on “Academic Journals: What are They?

  1. If one wants to do well in his/her studies ,opt for an academic journal .The reason being that the information found there is peer reviewed. That’s my contribution .Sir Blessing Budzah Marezva is an undergraduate student at the University of Zimbabwe.

  2. This is true, journalists can write opinionated articles on different subjects but they only seem to show one side of the argument. If you really want to see both sides of an argument or see the true ins and outs of a specific topic then you are better to read an article that is written by two people who are both respected their field of work.

    • Start writing . At least one page and let people comment on it. Guidance will only kill your creativity.

  3. I vaguely remember a popular scientist here in Australia named Dr Karl Kruszelnicki make mention on the radio show that he co-presents weekly about a major peer review Journal, a physics journal I think from memory, where the published article was complete utter nonsense. Perhaps it was in fact Alan Sokal he was referring to.

    When compared however, with your average journalist, the academic journal will be superior almost everytime.

    Thankyou for the insight.

    • Sokal submitted a paper that used physics language and concepts to argue a position he thought a certain sociology journal would find flattering… There will of course be other examples, but that one made quite a splash when it happened, because Sokal knew he was hoaxing the sociologists, who trusted his knowledge of physics, and published his article for the insight it seemed to offer in their discipline. But if it is true that any physicist would have seen through the hoax, then it really is an embarrassment that nobody bothered too check.

  4. I think that it so true that A journalist may very well produce a thoughtful, insightful, and important overview of a current issue in an academic field, but the journalist’s job is to summarize and explain what other people do.
    Because with my i put alot of information in my Journay

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